Photos: Boy in forest with ghost ( shutterjack/Getty); Ghost of the Hardy Boys; McFarlane (Courtesy of the McFarlane family)
Ghost of the Hardy Boys
In an excerpt from his 1976 memoir, Canadian ghostwriter Leslie McFarlane – a.k.a Franklin W. Dixon – recounts the moment he realized his favourite childhood author wasn’t a real person. / BY Nathalie Atkinson / June 17th, 2022
Leslie McFarlane is probably the most famous Canadian author most people have never heard of. It doesn’t help that his 1976 memoir has long been out of print, but that is rectified this week with the re-release of Ghost of the Hardy Boys: The Writer Behind the World’s Most Famous Boy Detectives.
Writing as Franklin W. Dixon, McFarlane penned more than 20 mysteries between 1927 and 1947. As the story goes, in 1926, the 23-year-old cub newspaper reporter responded to an ad for fiction writers to work from a publisher’s outlines. That publisher was Edward Stratemeyer, the mastermind behind a writing syndicate that produced the mass-market children’s adventure books featuring the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, the Bobbsey Twins, the Dana Girls and Nancy Drew.
Those popular stories, which are peppered throughout cottages and children’s’ bedrooms around the country even today, have shaped and connected generations. The editor at Godine who opted to republish Ghost of the Hardy Boys, for example, explains how much he treasured reading his father’s dog-eared copies of the Hardy adventures and passed the same worn books on to his young daughter to enjoy.
With the same easy warmth (although more self-deprecating humour) as his famous alter ego, McFarlane reminiscences about simple times growing up in a small town in northern Ontario’s prosperous Timiskaming silver mining region, quitting his newspaper job in the U.S., and moving back north to a remote cabin without running water or electricity, where he banged out his first Hardy Boys story. There are wonderful digressions, where he observes the pleasures of nature, and even recounts a run-in with Ernest Hemingway (a reporter for the Toronto Star Weekly at the time), whom he met in Sudbury.
In the following excerpt, McFarlane contemplates becoming a ghostwriter and describes discovering his favourite “author,” Roy Rockwood – another pseudonym, like Nat Ridley, Jr., created by the Stratemeyer Syndicate – isn’t real. It’s especially charming because, sooner or later, devoted Dixon readers will come to the same realization by reading this memoir.
During adolescence Roy Rockwood had always been one of my favorite people. I pictured him seated at his desk, pen in hand, white shirt open at the throat, a bulldog pipe in his teeth. The creator of Bomba the Jungle Boy had a steady gaze, a firm mouth, a determined jaw. The walls of his study bristled with heads of leopard, grizzly and saber-tooth tiger. True, I had never actually seen a picture of the great author but I didn’t have to. I just knew that’s how he would look.
Discovery of the truth about Roy Rockwood left me a little stunned.
When you read a book you know it must have been written by somebody. You assume that the author is the somebody named on the cover. You take it for granted that this writer lives and breathes, that he eats breakfast every morning, argues occasionally with his wife, takes aspirin for his headaches, resents paying income tax and has a sour opinion of most politicians. In short, that he is a human being.
Now I learned from an unimpeachable source that Roy Rockwood wasn’t a human being at all; he didn’t exist, he never had existed. He was just as fictitious as Bomba the Jungle Boy. Like Nat Ridley, Jr., he was an imaginary author created by an author who didn’t even write his own books. Roy Rockwood had less substance than a puff of smoke and by this time I wasn’t feeling very sure about Edward Stratemeyer either.
I realized then that America is truly the land of opportunity. America, where every little boy knows he can grow up to be President if he isn’t careful. Being Canadian, I couldn’t qualify. But I could be Roy Rockwood, once my favorite author. In fact, I even had a choice. I could be Nat Ridley, Jr. if I felt like it. Where else in the world could that happen, but in America? After work that night when the paper had gone to bed and the quiet of the cityroom was broken only by the occasional clatter of a teletype or an explosion of curses from the poker game down the hall, I settled down to study Dave Fearless Among the Icebergs (or The Secret of the Eskimo Igloo). The story opened on the Long Island estate of Amos Fearless, master diver, whose name was revered by all those brave men who went down into the sea in rubber suits and helmets. Mr. Fearless, “now old and feeble,” had retired and turned over the family business to his son, Dave.
It had never dawned on me that deep-sea diving was big business, but apparently there was good money in it. Someone was always trying to recover valuable papers, jewelry or treasure of some kind from some sunken vessel. And navies in various parts of the world, it seemed, sometimes lost track of their submarines. Rather than suffer the embarrassment of a public search, they preferred to contract the job to a discreet and reliable firm such as A. Fearless & Son.
Dave Fearless, an introductory paragraph explained, was no novice in the diving business. Beginning as his father’s surface assistant when he was a mere boy, he had been promoted to underwater helper and after serving his apprenticeship had become a fully qualified diver at the age of twenty-one. Somewhere at sometime during his deep-sea career, Dave had acquired a friend, Bob Vilett, a young marine engineer. When the twosome weren’t out diving for the firm, Bob was a house guest at the Long Island estate.
I recognized the ploy; Roy Rockwood was no fool. Any author who has a deep-sea diver for a hero runs into dialogue problems that are hard to believe. By the very nature of his solitary profession, a deep-sea diver will go around talking to himself most of the time. He may get used to it, but readers won’t put up with these monologues for very long. They crave real live talk, and to make sure they got it Author Rockwood had to invent Sounding Board Vilett.
From Ghost of the Hardy Boys by Leslie McFarlane. Copyright © 1976, 2022 by The Estate of Leslie McFarlane. Published by Godine. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.